(The title is a straight translation of a Greek proverb)
The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.
~Norman Vincent Peale
The whole concept of this takes a significant part in our lives and at most times it dramatically influences our state. We are social animals which means that we place a great importance on what others believe about us and how others behave when they deal with us. Being criticized many times scares us. Criticizing may be our hobby. But it seems we’ve learnt wrong. First, we have to understand the roots behind and then understand an important fact: If you make the switch in your mentality, criticism can be a valuable weapon, tremendously useful for your development.
When a person is being criticized may feel angry, revengeful and offended. Typically people react negatively to negative expressions of others about themselves, even though they may come from a positive predisposition. Maybe they feel bad about their personality afterwards. At the same time, positive appreciations about ourselves are most of the times believed and result in nice feelings towards the sender of them. Some people, even though they may not state it verbally, practically represent the mentality that everyone is a fool apart from them. All the above are an expression of our emotionally (not rationally) driven nature and more specifically of our lack of self-esteem.
Why we React on Criticism?
Sigmund Freud had first talked about the concept of self-defence mechanisms. These are psychological strategies used by an individual to protect him from feelings of anxiety, guilt, embarrassment etc. So when an environmental impulse appears and has the chance to create them, the mind immediately rejects it for reasons of psychological safety. At this point I have to mention once again that all this isn’t always observed by our consciousness but works “automatically”. The brain is an organ that needs always to have consistency between the internal and external information. The mind has a schema about every situation. When the environment stimulates that schema, sends different information compared to the one that is on the schema, there are two options; either the stimulus will be accepted by the brain and update the schema or the stimulus will be ignored and the schema will remain the same. The latter case is when the ego defence mechanism is in control. In this situation the brain will look for confirming evidence about this rejection. This evidence doesn’t always need to be rationally accepted but is most of the times rationalized. The process of backwards rationalization is very commonly observed and I wrote a small description about this in Introduction to Evolution and Practice.
An important role in how your reaction is going to be, is played by the person who criticizes and by the number of people who are observing the criticism. If, for example, a small child expresses a negative opinion about you, most of the times you ignore it and you are not affected at all. Or if a person that you don’t find his opinions generally reliable. On the opposite if a respectable man judges you, then this may affect you in several possible ways. Or if the same happens with your beloved partner or with your boss. Apart from this, it’s much different to be criticised in private than to be confronted publicly. That’s why we believe it’s not fair to judge someone in front of others. In this case the person judged has to care not only for the opinion of only one person but of many. We are social animals, remember?
What normally happens is that the person being criticized enters a state of denial trying all the time to come up with new “arguments” to prove he is right. At that situation he is not in a state of consciousness in order to discuss in a rational tone. He behaves emotionally, blinded by the fear of his ego underestimation. He will be disagreeing forever for the shake of disagreement. At that time, effective communication is unachievable and is better to let it go somehow or follow another strategy depending on the case. I’d like to point out that a common method of self-defence is devaluating the critic. At the point when a negative statement arrives, the other person in our eyes becomes unreliable, complexed and definitely close to madness. And we really believe it.
Of course the opposite happens, too. We feel ready to rationalize the validity of positive statements about ourselves. The compliments are typically accepted as truths and the senders as reliable and almost holy people. As you very well know, human relationships don’t work like this. Compliments have several other reasons to exist apart from describing the truth. There, also, exist situations that people with low self-esteem cannot accept positive evaluations as credible because they are used to challenge their conception of self as totally useless and unworth of humane treatment. This is seen, for instance, in cases of abused women or people who identify with negative aspects of themselves.
Chinese and American Children on Selective Skepticism
The previous days I came across an interesting study. Although, it is about children I think can provide with some interesting conclusions. During this year Heyman et. al. published the article Selective skepticism: American and Chinese children’s reasoning about evaluative academic feedback. What they measured was how children from China and USA respond to criticism. He found that children from both countries find negative evaluations less reliable than the positive ones. The difference between the groups was that children from China showed greater acceptance of criticism than the US. This may have to do with their admirably moderate and collective culture compared to the westerns’.
The results suggest that children are selective in their trust of evaluative feedback and that their credibility judgments may be influenced by the desirability of the information that is being conveyed or its anticipated consequences. (Heyman et. al.,2013)
What is Acceptance of Criticism all about
Judging from all the above you can understand that in most cases not accepting criticism or reacting to it is only an expression of a very limited self. Of course I am excluding the offensive criticism. You know opinions are opinions and will always exist. You cannot say to anyone not to believe whatever he believes. You cannot open his or her mind and put inside your own beliefs. Same way is about the opinions about you. Apart from judging how sceptical I should be about the information I receive, I am doing my best not to put to blame them on personal grounds (First 3 stages of Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement). Even if someone hates me, the best thing to do is just check the reasons behind and see if I had been mistaken. But he or she must not be blamed at all. What only matters is how someone treats you.
By being personally affected by everyone’s opinion about you means that you don’t have a stong base of self efficacy. When this happens I understand that someone seems to not be totally convinced about his abilities. Else, he wouldn’t care so much to disprove a judgement that finds it doesn’t describe him/her or have bad feelings about the person who expresses it. At the same time many people confuse the denial of criticism with a strong personality. The opposite seems to be the truth.
I usually listen to statements that “I accept criticism and I am open and I have nothing to hide.” I understand these statements, I have done them, as well, even to my own self, but most of the times seem to not be true. It’s a backwards rationalization that s/he is not doing backwards rationalization. This tendency of the mind to create a concept once again takes place and many people have in their minds the story they wished was happening. Natural selection appears to have hidden our true selves from our conscious selves, wisely Robert Wright had mentioned. The truth is that we need to make huge steps in our intrapersonal intelligence to reach at least an acceptable level of mind clarity to observe when we are trying to reject valid negative information about us. Personally, I have accepted and felt sometimes bad for the fact that there will come times in the future that I will make mistakes and both my mind and my human nature will not “let” me understand them.
Criticism as your Weapon in Personal Development
In order to be proactive in the above tendencies of our perception, then, we have this valuable tool. Criticism is the wisest way to get out of the imaginative spiral loop we have entered in our opinions about ourselves. Another person’s opinions are the ships that will drag us when we are cast aways in the abyss of our minds. But we often put an anchor that lets us move in only predetermined distances. In order to break its chains we need courage. We need to feel the strength to be uncomfortable in both confronting ourselves in front of another human and break our mind’s self scenario that we so well have practised throughout our lives. Do your best to find people who care to point to you when you fault.
At the same time acceptance of criticism can save you from many difficult situations. For example, I remember once I avoided a 150 euros fine from a police officer because, without noticing, I had broken a law when driving. I totally admitted my fault by looking at him sincerely and due to the fact I was a student, too, he just let me go. I notice people every day making clear unquestionable mistakes and afterwards try to disprove this fact. This is totally irrational because if they had admitted it, it could have been much more possible to be excused. But this behaviour drives other people crazy. Still they continue repeating them without understanding how disgusting they become and how they irreversably traumatize their image.
I guess we don’t want to be like this. We want first of all to have a realistic idea about our competencies and about our incompetencies. If you distrust all the criticism best case scenario you won’t develop and, possibly, as years pass by, your defficiences will be increased. If you believe all the compliments you get, you will pass the limits of a realistic sense of optimism which is the optimal.